- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2000

Surrounded by violence and political turmoil, Israeli leader Ehud Barak finally conceded last week that there must be early elections. He also offered a revised deal to the Palestinians, indicative of the slow and incremental peace track any Israeli leader must follow in the near future. In order to preserve a stable government, such a measured, centrist platform will be mandatory.

Mr. Barak's "phased agreement" would recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, increasing the land there under Palestinian control from 40 to 50 percent. Resolutions involving the sovereignty of Jerusalem and return of Palestinian refugees would be put off for one to three years. Though the Palestinians immediately and flatly rejected the deal, which didn't come close to the one he offered at Camp David, candidates for prime minister working on their own versions should not be disheartened. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat showed during negotiations at Camp David, and again by not enforcing the cease-fire agreed to in the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement, that the Palestinians are not willing to negotiate on the existing peace track.

A new forum, in which the United States takes a more back seat role, will likely give both sides the breathing room they need to come back to the negotiating table. This trust cannot be built by a fractured Israeli government or by a Palestinian leadership unwilling to provide counteroffers and a call for a stop to the violence.

Israel must now spend the next three months before the election thinking about which candidate can put together a unified government. Mr. Barak's previous campaign platform, based on attaining peace deals with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians has been undermined by fractures within his coalition government, which was initially made up of bickering politicians from seven parties. If Mr. Barak is to make a strong case for reelection, those dynamics will have to change.

Mr. Barak's potential competition from within the Labor Party, Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, has ties to both orthodox Jews and Labor, but is not a formidable candidate. Ariel Sharon, the hard-line leader of the opposition Likud party, has said he will run, but has little public support from his own party. And former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has experience and renewed popularity on his side, is expected to go for another round both for party leadership in the Likud as well as for prime minister.

The most electable politician will be the one whose centrist position acknowledges the Palestinians' right to statehood while insisting on protection of Israeli security. Instead of trying to solve the entire region's conflicts in one year with detailed road maps, he will recognize the need within the peace process for negotiating room in a region where the political atmosphere is anything but static.

All this will be in vain, of course, if Mr. Arafat and the Palestinian leadership do not come out strongly against violence. Both sides would do well to use the pre-election period to prepare their people for a new era of trust building.

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